Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Muck up your Shakespeare

(Kathryn Grayson and Howard Keel in the 1953 MGM movie version of "Kiss Me, Kate.")
Every classic worthy of its Cliff's Notes has been hurtled through the centuries. Some of the happier landings have included Jane Austen's "Emma" in a Beverly Hills High School retitled "Clueless." With a Jones added to her name, Bizet's Carmen burned up a commissary in a World War II parachute factory. And in each case, the creators made sure that the original values logically flowered in its new soil.

(Broadway's fabled acting couple, Lynn Fontanne and Alfred Lunt, do it the Elizabethan way.)
When the producers Saint Subber and Lemuel Ayers decided to update Shakespeare's "The Taming of the Shrew" in a theater in post-war Baltimore, they had book writers Sam and Bella Spewack carefully parallel the original story with two feuding, egomaniacal theater folk, who were once married, and a parcel of Burlesque rogues that precisely mirror the Bard's Elizabethan madcaps. Most importantly, the work was imbued with the caviar of Cole Porter's score, which justified the transformation with its high style, romance and innuendo. For example, "If your baby is begging for pleasure, let her sample your measure for measure." Still, the creators had the integrity and sagacity to retitle the work "Kiss Me, Kate."
(Phyllis Diller is one of the many odd references shoe-horned into the Great Lakes' production.)
If the Great Lakes Theater had embraced the same truth in advertising, they would have retitled their take on the play "Gag Me with a Spoon, Bitch." For this production uses the antics of Katherine and Petruchio to function as the grand marshals of a pageant of '80s mayhem. Perhaps the most disconcerting aspect is the insertion of what seems to be a translation by the Bee Gees of such daunting couplets as "What, sweetie, all bummed out?" and "I've come to wive it wealthily in Hollywood." They even throw in a direct reference to Porter's "Where is the Life that Late I Led?"
(Jane Fonda, whose aerobics are the true muse of this production.)
Back in 1948, Porter pulled off the remarkable feat of spinning the Bard's poetry into musical rapture. In comparison, the updating of the dialogue in this production is akin to aesthetic vandalism for cheap laughs. Admittedly, director Tracy Young's '80s tomfoolery - with its use of Keith Haring's art, Jane Fonda aerobics classes breaking out on the streets of Hollywood, and a tongue-in-cheek spoof of Tom Cruise in "Risky Business" - have sass and energy. But they help bury Shakespeare, and the story of Kate and her Petrouchio doesn't begin to emerge until the last 20 minutes.
(That special age for whom this production has been fashioned.)
What the company has given us is an ideal production for Shakespeare-hating junior-high students, who are incapable of dealing with Elizabethan language or customs of another era. It's also an aphrodisiac for those who never got over their high-school crushes on Madonna.
(Jim Lichtscheidl and Sara M. Bruner, whom we hope to see in an authentic "Taming of the Shrew" someday. Photo by Roger Mastroianni.)
Underneath the Jamie Lee Curtis hairdo and the Hollywood running suit, Sara M. Bruner and Jim Lichtscheidl provide traces of a meaningful Kate and Petruchio amid the '80s detritus. By the end of the evening, their warm personalities and genuine chemistry help melt the production's cynical disdain for the play. Invariably, it's too darn cold and too darn funky.

"The Taming of the Shrew" runs through Saturday, Oct. 29. For tickets, call 216-241-6000.

1 comment:

  1. Last time I saw "Shrew", in a very traditional take at the Ohio Shakespeare Festival, the large crowd in which I sat seemed to follow everything and to be well entertained. No dumbing-down, no "updating" - just a firm connection to the audience by actors speaking as though they knew what they were saying. Seems to work - at least outdoors at Stan Hywet in the summers.